The Orlando Consort and Guillaume de Machaut

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Program: #19-21   Air Date: May 13, 2019

Don Greig shares the newest three recordings from the new series on Hyperion of the complete works of Machaut: “Sovereign Beauty,” “Fortune’s Child,” and “The Gentle Physician."

NOTE: All of the music on this program is features the Orlando Consort and our guest Don Greig. The recordings are on the Hyperion label. For more information: 

I. Machaut: Sovereign Beauty-- Hyperion CD CDA 68134.

From :Guillaume de Machaut was one of the most influential composers of the 14th century, and his secular love songs were as significant as his sacred masterpiece, the Messe de Nostre Dame. The Orlando Consort began its survey of Machaut's music with the 2013 album, Songs from Le Voir Dit, which was followed by The Dart of Love in 2015, and A Burning Heartin 2016, thus making Sovereign Beauty, their 2017 release on Hyperion, the fourth installment in this impressive series. This CD is a collection of Machaut's settings of his own chivalric poems about idealized beauty, in the forms of the unaccompanied virelai and the contrapuntal motet, ballade, and rondeau, which were influential in the development of the Ars nova in the court music of France and Burgundy. Machaut's interlocking part writing is smoothly rendered by countertenor Matthew Venner, tenors Mark Dobell and Angus Smith, and baritone Donald Greig, who have mastered the rhythmic complexities and harmonic tensions between the lines to convey the proper lyrical expression with practiced ease and proper intonation. Hyperion's recording in the church of St. John the Baptist, Loughton, Essex captures the singers with clarity and a feeling of closeness, though the acoustics lend some spatial depth to the group.
Miraculously, the poems and music of Guillaume de Machaut (c1300-1377) have come down to us in what is probably a complete state, no doubt owing to the care with which their creator had his works put to parchment in precious illuminated manuscripts. Their beauty may have ensured that they survived the disastrous events which ravaged France during the later fourteenth century. No fewer than six of these manuscripts contain both his poetical and his musical compositions, a few more only his poetical works. Machaut also left us a literary portrait of himself: in several of his narrative works he acts as an observer and commentator on the comportment of noble lovers, and in two stories he even steps to the fore himself as the lover-protagonist. Moreover, at the end of his life he added a prologue to his works in which he formulated his artistic creed. Thus, we have a fairly clear picture of Machaut as an author, whether or not this would have had any resemblance to his real-life person, of whom but scarce documentation remains.

During the first half of his long life Machaut was patronized by the house of Luxembourg, first climbing up to the function of secretary at the court of count John the Blind, who also was king of Bohemia; later he served John’s daughter Bonne. She was married to the future king of France, John the Good, but died in 1349 of the plague. For both father and daughter Machaut expressed a life-long veneration. The patronage was continued by Bonne’s son-in-law Charles of Navarre, and later her sons Philip of Burgundy, John of Berry and Charles of Normandy, who was to become king Charles V. In the meantime Machaut had also acquired canonries in Reims and Saint-Quentin, well-paid sinecures which allowed him to devote his time to the composition of his literary and musical works. During his later years in Reims he arranged the precise order of his works and had them copied in sumptuous books, on command of his various protectors. His artistic achievements earned him a reputation in the fourteenth century as France’s most famous poet and composer. He died in 1377 at a respectable age, having astonishingly survived the dangers of war and plague.

Machaut’s works evoke a refined and elegant courtly society, almost a dream-vision within the cruel fourteenth-century reality of pestilence, war and civil strife; only scattered remarks in his narrative works and the lamentations of his late motets betray his awareness of France’s tribulations. With few exceptions—especially these last motets and his Mass—his works are dedicated to the vagaries and difficulties but also the joys of courtly love. The compositions recorded here belong for the most part to his earlier works, in which Machaut experimented with the genres he had inherited from tradition, such as the lay and motet, and with the various chanson types—virelai, ballade, and rondeau—of which he codified the forms for a long time to come. Within the restrictions of these ‘fixed forms’ he strove to endue each individual work with something ‘foreign and novel’ as he repeatedly expressed it, since that was found ‘most pleasing by the listeners’. Not only the meaning but also the concrete sound of words and rhymes play an important role in his compositions. He was fond of double meanings and wordplays: words that sound identical but have different, even opposed meanings. In his musical style a wealth of little, standardized motifs alternating with sudden leaps are strung together in daring counterpoint to form a colourful mosaic.

The three main song forms were all originally destined for dancing. Only the virelai preserved that character; Machaut preferred to call it a ‘chanson baladee’. It opens and closes with a refrain; possibly we should suppose group performance for the many refrain lines and solo performance for the new verses. Most virelais are monophonic. Their declamation is often fairly syllabic, enlivened by short melismas. The virelai seems to have been much in favour at Bonne of Luxembourg’s court. Four of them can be heard in the present recording. Comment qu’a moy lonteinne (Virelai 5) is based on a thirteenth-century woman’s song, Belle Doette, in which a lady laments the absence of her lover, who has just died in a joust, and promises to remain faithful to his memory. Machaut recasts the song for a man’s voice, as he swears faith to an absent beloved; the melody is clearly inspired by the festoons of the older song. Tres bonne et belle (Virelai 23) is Machaut’s only three-voice work in this genre. Its polyphony is, however, much simpler than that of the ballades and rondeaus. Stricken by his lady’s beauty the lover pledges to serve her, even in spite of her absence and the pesterings of those eternal enemies of lovers, gossipers. Foy porter (Virelai 22), again a testimony of the lover’s loyalty, is remarkable for its short lines of text and the accordingly brief melodic lines, sung in an energetic duple measure. Dame, a qui (Virelai 12) also has short lines, but here they alternate with longer ones; it makes the short ones sound as sobs. In this song the lover complains that he finds no sign of goodwill, let alone of any promise, in his beloved lady, although he does not abandon all hope.

Both ballade and rondeau soon lost their dance character in the fourteenth century and developed into stately songs with complex polyphony. Simplest in form is the ballade which has only one refrain line at the end of each of its three stanzas, mostly a memorable expression that may be a quotation. The declamation of the text is usually fairly slow, with many melismas. De desconfort(Ballade 8) is sung by an agonizing lover, who sums up his sufferings while nevertheless remaining willing to die, as the refrain tells, ‘En desirant vostre douce mercy’ (‘Desiring sweet mercy from you’). The two-voice work has a very melismatic and impassioned melody, its mode seeking the limits of the contemporary gamut. A much lighter atmosphere reigns in Dame, ne regardés pas (Ballade 9), in which the lover is caught by the lady’s pleasant look (‘Par vostre dous plaisant regart’). The song is characterized by a stubborn dotted rhythm. The experimental four-voice Se quanque Amours (Ballade 21) features a colourful contrapuntal palette, and within the text a rare, almost suspect, jubilant message that nothing can surpass the good and the joy that the lover possesses, ‘Contre le bien et la joie que j’ay’ (‘Compared to the benefits and joy I possess’).

The rondeau, characterized by a compact text with many repeats, was the most intimate type of song. The only rondeau recorded here, the two-voice Quant j’ay l’espart (Rondeau 5), has playful short verses, like many a virelai, but in the music long-drawn melismas with gently sloping lines prevail, expressing the quiet well-being the lover feels.

The lay was known as the most arduous musico-literary genre. A typical lay is monophonic and has twelve double stanzas, eleven of which each have a different metre, rhyme-scheme and melody, the twelfth stanza repeating those of the first. It is a challenge for the poet to find such a variety of metres and rhyme sounds. The attribution of the lay recorded here, Un lay de consolation ‘Pour ce que plus proprement’ (Lay 23), is contested: it is only found in a manuscript written long after Machaut’s death. The poetic form and content are not untypical for Machaut; the musical structure, however, is unique. In this work, in contrast to all other lays, the second stanza of each pair has a new melody. It has been discovered that the two melodies make perfect counterpoint with each other and thus should not be sung in succession but simultaneously. Thus, exceptionally, this is a lay with two different voices. Machaut wrote two three-voice lays but these are both in canon form. The text of the lay divides in two parts: the first six stanzas are a testimony of a lover’s fidelity, but in the second part jealousy and gossip estrange him from his lady; the transition is characterized in the music by a change of metre. At the very end the voice of the lady (or perhaps of the God of love) answers the lover’s complaint, consoling him and promising him joy after his travails.

Like the virelais, Machaut’s motets belong for the most part to his earliest compositions; only the last three can be related to events from around 1358–1360. The other twenty were certainly composed before c1350, but probably much earlier. A typical motet features three different voices and texts in a hierarchic structure. The subject is enclosed in the lowest voice, the tenor, which customarily is a melisma borrowed from liturgical chant; its words usually convey a strong emotion. The melody is rhythmicized in very large note values, forming repeating patterns, called the taleae, and has thus the slowest movement. On this basic layer, a faster moving voice is composed, with a fairly brief poetic text, the motetus; the third voice, called triplum, sounds highest, moves fastest and declaims the longest text. The challenge of a motet was—and is—to find out how the three texts and melodies cooperate in the presentation of, and reflection on, a moral problem.

The two motets presented here are closely related, first of all since in both tenors the same biblical person speaks, namely David: as the Psalmist in De Bon Espoir / Puis que la douce / Speravi (Motet 4), and as the king in J’ay tant / Lasse! Je sui / Ego moriar pro te (Motet 7). Their complex musical construction is also very similar, although the tenor melodies are very different. The tenor word of motet 4, ‘Speravi’, gave Machaut the opportunity to use it in a double sense. In the original Psalm text (Psalm 12) it expresses David’s lasting trust in the Lord’s mercy, although his enemies seem to prevail against him; on its own, however, the Latin verb can also imply ‘I hoped (but do no longer)’. That is the sense which is elaborated in the upper voices, in which allegorical figures help or oppose the lover in his courtly pursuit. At first he was supported by Good Hope but Desire attacks him so strongly that he loses hope. Paradoxically, only by despairing and by complete subjection to the dual wills of his lady and Love can he eventually regain hope for mercy. The obsessive tenor melody consists of only four notes which are constantly interchanging; this motif is taken over in the middle voice, and ultimately also appears in the upper voice, so that eventually it pervades the entire contrapuntal structure, probably as an expression of the lover’s obsession with the struggle between Hope and Desire.

In motet 7, the three texts conjure up three different but related stories. The tenor words evoke a tragic biblical tale, and the slowly and gradually falling chant melody was famous as an utterance of grief: king David wishes to give his life for his beautiful son Absalom who has risen up against him and been killed by David’s general Joab. Like in motet 4, the Latin words have a double meaning: in their original context they express David’s love and despair (‘Might I die for you’), but in isolation they can also be read with a more ominous meaning: ‘I shall die for you’. This is what they betoken in the texts of the upper voices. In the motetus a female voice retells the Greek myth of the beautiful Narcissus who despised the love of the nymph Echo. She died from grief, but he as well fell prey to a fatal passion: that for his own reflection in the water of a fountain, since then known as the mirror of Narcissus. In vain reaching out for this illusory beloved he died from unfulfillable longing. The lady compares her own fate to this tragic myth and her story is more amply explained in the triplum. There, full of remorse, she complains how she foolishly despised the love of her true friend, preferring another. This second lover, however, has proved false and has deceived her. The lady can’t regain the love of her erstwhile lover since he, for his part, has found someone else. Thus, his fate, being rejected, now has become hers, as by the effect of a mirror. Her desire for her lover makes her transgress all decency: she openly confesses her burning love—as a courtly lady under no condition should—but to no avail; she will die from longing, like Narcissus.

Whether he turned to the simplicity of the danced virelai or the increasingly complex polyphony of ballade and rondeau, whether he dealt with the poetic challenges of the lay or the intricacies of the learned motet, Machaut’s inventiveness made him endow each of his works with a singular and unique character. In his life-long musings over the problems of love, expressed in superb poetry and music, he achieved an impressive oeuvre of an astonishing variety. Thanks to his carefulness in preserving his works, we can, even after 700 years, enjoy Machaut’s creations afresh.

Tres bonne et belle
Foy porter, V22
Dame, ne regardes pas, B9
J'ay tant / Lasse! Je sui / Ego moriar pro te
Se quanque amours, B21
Dame, a qui m'otri de cuer, V12
De desconfort, B8
Quant j'ay l'espart
Comment qu'a moy
De Bon Espoir / Puis que la douce / Speravi
Un Lay de consolation

II. Machaut: Fortune’s Child-- Hyperion CD CDA 68195.

The figure of fickle Lady Fortune was familiar in medieval poetry and art. She could be portrayed as a blindfolded woman, turning her mechanical wheel that raised mortals up to power and wealth or cast them down to poverty and despair. In other depictions, her dual nature was embodied in her very physicality: half young, half old; half black, half white; one side in fine raiment, the other dressed in rags. Her actions were indiscriminate, no person was so high or so low that they could not be affected by her machinations, and there were no means by which to appeal for mercy. Guillaume de Machaut (c1300-1377), the pre-eminent composer of the fourteenth century, was well aware of the power of Fortune as a literary trope. His narrative poem Le Remede de Fortune was the story of a young man instructed by Lady Hope in how to withstand the vicissitudes of Fortune. Hope’s ‘remedy’ for Fortune is to give the narrator a stronger sense of self, for while Fortune may strip him at her whim of wealth, friends, and love, she cannot take away the strength of character he has fostered within.


Machaut drew on many sources in his portrayal of Fortune. One famous rendition of this allegorized mistress of fate can be found in Le Roman de Fauvel, of which Machaut was certainly aware, having modelled some of his lais after the interpolated songs in that narrative. In the tale, which satirizes the French court of the early 1300s, the character Fauvel, an upstart donkey who has become king of France thanks to Fortune’s manoeuvres, attempts to woo her so that he can be ever at the top of her wheel (he is unsuccessful, but is given her handmaiden, Vainglory, to marry instead). But perhaps the greatest influence upon Machaut in this regard is Boethius’ De consolatione philosophiae (‘The Consolation of Philosophy’). Written in the sixth century, the Consolation relates a conversation between the imprisoned Boethius and the allegorical figure of Lady Philosophy. She counsels the prisoner that true good is that which can be found within one’s own mind. The riches and glory of the world are transitory since they are subject to Fortune, but Fortune cannot touch one’s inner resolve or happiness.

Machaut’s use of Boethius transplanted the Roman philosopher’s ideology from the literal prison cell to the metaphorical prison cell of the tortured lover. A lighter, courtlier version of Boethius, Machaut drew on his thinking to turn romantic love into a rarefied and spiritual experience in which the lover should not hope for physical satisfaction. Rather, she or he should gain strength from the experience of loving someone, and appreciate the intangible effects of the soul’s ennoblement.

Thus, the fourteen songs on this album represent the many different experiences of a lover as she or he encounters the vagaries of Fortune’s wheel: from the unbridled joy of Gais et jolis in which the lover nears the end of a separation from his lady, to the abject despondency of Riches d’amour in which the lover laments ‘Quant ma dame me het et je l’aour’(‘Since my lady hates me and I adore her’). Nowhere, for Machaut, were Fortune’s machinations more keenly felt than in the realm of love, and the songs here represent the highs and lows, the spiritual and physical pain, and the lover’s wavering belief in his ability to endure them.

Gais et jolis (Ballade 35)is perhaps one of Machaut’s most overtly joyful ballades, as he declares ‘Si qu’il n’est maus, tristesse, ne dolour / Qui de mon cuer peust joie mouvoir’ (‘And so there is no ill, sadness, or misery / That could shift my heart from joy’). Uplifting in its sentiment, the musical phrasing mirrors this with most phrases ending in an upward melodic trajectory. Darker in tone both musically and textually, Dous amis, oy mon complaint (Ballade 6) tells of the distress of unrequited love. In this anguished ballade, we are presented with the physical as well as the emotional symptoms of love: the lady flushes and her strength wanes. The music reflects these pains through twisting melismas. Striking a balance between the previous two tracks, the virelai Dame, je vueil endurer (Virelai 9) demonstrates a Boethian acceptance of love’s pain in return for the honour of serving the lady. Yet, while the words denote balance, the music destabilizes this with an intricate rhythmic setting of those words, and, in the pedes (the melodic statement after the refrain), the melody which climbs in pitch throughout the first part of the musical statement takes only half the time to descend to the opening pitch. So while the text implies equilibrium, the music hints at the difficulties in maintaining it.

The first motet on this recording is in fact the last one Machaut wrote in Middle French, and the last one to be dedicated to the subject of fin’amors (courtly love). Trop plus est bele / Biauté paree de valour / Je ne sui mie (Motet 20) is thought by some to have been written for his patron, Bonne of Luxembourg, who died in 1349 (whether of plague or murdered by her husband for an alleged affair is still unclear). The unusual use of ‘Amen’ at the end of an ostensibly secular motet may indicate that this was written as a memorial benediction for her, although it could equally be seen as raising the exultation of the lady to a quasi-religious level. It is generally thought that Machaut’s first complete-works manuscript, BnF fr. 1586, was created for Bonne, and the Remede de Fortune in particular evokes her court and its activities in detail and splendour. While writing to entertain Bonne and her entourage would have been part of Machaut’s duties at court, both the Remede and this motet seem to display a genuine affection for his patroness.

Outwardly a heartfelt declaration of love and commitment, the rondeau Douce dame, tant com vivray (Rondeau 20) also hints at the immanent pain of love ‘Car mis en vos laz mon vivre ay’ (‘For I’ve bound my life over to you’). The theme of pain is picked up more overtly in the virelai Dou mal qui m’a longuement (Virelai 8), in which the protagonist compares love to a sickness, but one that he willingly and gratefully endures. The beautiful simplicity of the melody, which frequently moves by step, does not evoke pain, but rather the joyful acceptance of suffering for a lady who is truly worthy. Comment puet on miex ses maus dire (Rondeau 11) is a rondeau which, like Dous amis and Dou mal qui m’a longuement, captures the physicality of love’s pains. This short text also explores the emotional struggle faced in deciding whether or not to declare one’s love: should the lover admit his feelings and risk rejection? The rich, busy texture of the music recalls the conflict expressed by the text, whose refrain is a question.

The exuberant melismas of Dame, vostre dous viaire (Virelai 17) transmit the joy of this virelai, whose text relates the unreserved happiness of the lover in serving his lady. Machaut frequently revisits the idea of the heart as an entity that can take up spiritual residence in the object of his affection, and this virelai is one such lyric. The heart is drawn to the lady by her gaze and is infused with such longing that it can go nowhere else. By contrast, Hé! Mors! / Fine Amour / Quare non sum mortuus (Motet 3) is a cry of pain. Lamenting the death of the beloved, the motet is founded on a tenor whose liturgical source is the Historia of Job, which in turn is taken from chapters 3, 6 and 9 of the book of Job. These passages of the Bible depict Job fearing the wrath of the Lord and pondering the purpose of his existence in a world of suffering. The upper lines of this motet also contemplate the pain of living, but lay the blame for suffering at the door of the allegorical figures of Death, True Love, and Fortune. Drawing also on citations from Marian songs and trouvère lyrics, Hé! Mors! / Fine Amour / Quare is rich in its intertextuality, and would have evoked for medieval listeners a complex set of emotional resonances.

In Dame, mon cuer enportez (Virelai 32) we once again encounter the idea of the lover’s heart being given to the lady for her safe keeping, while the lover creates for himself a mental depiction of the lady to carry with him. This reflects themes found in Machaut’s narrative dits Le Livre dou Voir Dit (‘The Book of the True Tale’) and Le Confort d’Ami (‘Comfort for a Friend’). In both these tales Machaut writes of grafting his heart onto the lady, while at the same time creating an image of her in his heart. The grafted heart and mental imagery are intended to sustain the lovers even when they cannot be near. This idea is developed to such an extent that it could be argued that for Machaut this internal representation becomes more important than the represented beloved: what better way to weather Fortune’s mutability than to fashion an inner world that the goddess cannot touch? Nevertheless, in this virelai, the lover laments that the lady’s departure will slay him.

Aside from Hé! Mors! / Fine Amour / QuareRiches d’amour (Ballade 5) is perhaps the most plaintive track here. The lover finds himself without anything that might give him joy, since his lady hates him. He finds no cure for his love and no hope of mercy. Yet there is a Boethian twist in the third stanza: the lover accepts that if it is the will of Love that he die, he will do so gladly. Repetitions of short descending phrases in the music suggest sighs of resignation.

The motet Helas! pour quoy virent / Corde mesto / Libera me (Motet 12) is replete with direct and indirect references to Fortune’s cruelty. In the uppermost line, the triplum, the lover laments ever having laid eyes on his lady, because he is now so out of her favour. The middle line, the motetus, is in Latin, making this a bilingual motet (unusual for Machaut). The motetus has three stanzas, of which the first could be read as a complaint of love, the second bemoans Fortune’s heedless machinations, while the third ponders heavenly salvation: it is a transition from the grips of passion to a calmer, more philosophical stance. The tenor, founded on the melody of a lenten responsory taken from Genesis 32: 11, suggests a route to succour through scripture. Yet, when we examine the scriptural passages, these may well indicate that Machaut doubted that philosophical detachment could truly be achieved. Jacob’s story in Genesis is both eventful and materially grounded; he is an equivocal figure who at times cheated others and was cheated himself, and this arguably does not reflect the Boethian stillness putatively sought in the motetus. The tenor is often regarded as the sacred centre of a motet, offering religious certainty to counterbalance the worldlier upper lines, yet Machaut’s use of the turbulent Jacob implies that he doubted the possibility of finding true peace in the realm of human emotion.

Puis que ma dolour agree (Virelai 7) is another virelai that explores the contradiction inherent in the pain of love. Love, when unrewarded, is undoubtedly distressing, yet there is a sweetness to be found in loving someone of great worth. Seemingly Boethian in its attempts to withstand the agonies of romantic attachment, this virelai nonetheless ends with the hope that the lover will receive mercy. Honte, paour, doubtance (Ballade 25) differs from the other tracks here in that it details the ideal behaviour of the courtly lady. The ballade exhorts moderation and modest deportment. The purpose of this warning is revealed in the final stanza: even in the most refined young person love can induce them to exceed sense and measure. This is exemplified in the music by unexpected harmonic turns. Once again, Machaut urges the restraint that Boethius espoused, but without fully renouncing the life of sensual pleasure.

Machaut is truly Fortune’s child. He rails against her and yet cannot help but return to her repeatedly throughout his works. Did he ultimately reach for an orderly philosophical solution in the manner of Boethius? While Boethius’ writings were a theme woven throughout Machaut’s works, he dwelt in the world of courtly love, where the struggles of desire were a constant. Perhaps Machaut was accepting that he could never fully attain Boethius’ philosophical position, or indicating that in the world in which he plied his poetic and musical trade, such resolution or closure was either unachievable or ultimately even undesirable.

  • Gais et jolis
  • Dame, je weil endurer
  • Trop plus est bele/Biaute paree/Je ne sui mie
  • Douce dame, tant com vivray
  • Dou mal qui m'a longuement
  • Comment puet on
  • Dame, vostre doulz viaire
  • He! Mors/Fine amour/Quare non sum mortuus
  • Dame, mon cuer emportés
  • Riches d'amour et mendians
  • Helas! pour quoy virent/Corde mesto/Libera me
  • Puis que ma dolour agree
  • Honte, paour doubtance

    III. Machaut: The Gentle Physician — Hyperion CD CDA 68206

    In April 1377 France’s greatest poet-musician, Guillaume de Machaut, was buried in Reims cathedral. Eighty years later King René d’Anjou, a passionate writer himself and a great patron of the arts, evoked in Le Livre du Coeur d’Amour Épris (‘The Book of the Love-Smitten Heart’, 1457) Machaut’s imaginary tomb amidst those of five other famous love poets on the ‘cemetery of unhappy lovers’, behind the ‘Ospital d’Amours’ (‘Love’s hospital’). His tombstone was ‘made wholly of fine silver and all around were inscriptions in blue, green and violet enamel, and incised were well-notated chansons, as well as virelais, serventoys, lays and motets, made and composed in various ways’.

    A tangible monumental ‘tombstone’ survives in the six manuscripts that contain all of Machaut’s compositions, literary and musical: an exceptional heritage, the more so as the author himself supervised the making of at least one of these costly books, which were destined for his various noble patrons. For no other medieval composer do we possess so many works in authoritative versions. And indeed, in their parchment are ‘incised’ many well-notated chansons, virelais, lays, and motets, composed in various ways.

    In the Prologue which Machaut, late in life, added as an introduction to his works, he tells how Lady Nature created him in order that he should create many and varied new forms, small and large, and how the God of Love offered him the subject-matter for these works. Both this personal statement and King René’s description emphasize the pursuit of variety within Machaut’s poetical and musical oeuvre. He wrote in all the existing literary and musical forms and was a great explorer of polyphony in the traditionally monophonic song genres. Variation and inventiveness are found not only in the forms but also in the rhymes and metres of his poetry, as well as in puns and plays with the sound of words. In his music, typical small four-note motifs alternating with larger leaps are strung together to form long expressive melodies, which, in polyphony, combine into a colourful harmonic mosaic, occasionally peppered with biting dissonances.

    Although the Messe de Notre Dame is perhaps Machaut’s best-known work, the predominant subject in his oeuvre is courtly love, with all its sufferings and—less often—joys. Bad luck in love, often personified in the figure of Lady Fortune, is ever-present in Machaut’s poetry and many times he set his ponderings about her capricious behaviour to music in a plaintive song, lay or motet. The present recording begins and ends with such a ballade, in which, unusually, both her positive and her negative sides come into view. In the grand ‘Lay de confort’, also recorded here, she plays a dominant role. Consolation for Fortune’s blows can only be found by trusting in Hope, the dous mire (‘gentle physician’) of unhappy lovers, as he is called in the Lay.

    Ballade 23, De Fortune, which opens the album, is a surprising piece of music and apparently one of the more popular of Machaut’s songs, since it is found in a wide range of manuscripts. Its subject is a lady’s complaint about Fortune, who initially favoured her so much that, according to the refrain, no ‘woman so well provided for’ could ever be found. Her happiness is not stable, however, since Fortune now threatens to destroy it. Machaut’s way of composing with small melodic motifs comes particularly clearly to the fore in this ballade. The frequent syncopations in the upper voice (the triplum) and the cantus betray Fortune’s slippery and untrustworthy character. The tenor has a strange, disjointed beginning, consisting of repeated notes broken off by rests. The last track of the recording presents the first verse of a version from a posthumous manuscript, in which a fourth voice, a contratenor, has been added, surely by a later composer. The listener may compare the two versions and judge whether the angular new contratenor with its repeated fifths enriches or obscures Machaut’s original version.

    Whereas ballades have a refrain of a single recurring line at the end of each stanza, and have lost their original dance character, virelais (which Machaut preferred to call ‘chansons baladees’) are indeed dancing songs with a lively rhythm and short phrases. The virelai’s refrain is sung at the beginning and end of the piece, and between each of its three stanzas, and was perhaps intended to be sung by a company of dancers, while a soloist would sing the couplets with new text in between the refrains. Virelais can also be sung in their entirety by a soloist, as with all three of the examples on this album. In virelai 10, De bonté, de valour, the poet seems entirely carefree. It features abundant praise of the lady’s beauty and goodness, sung to a tender, longing melody. The dominant iambic (short-long) rhythm is typical for virelais.

    The two-voice ballade 7, J’aim miex languir, probably an early work, has that same catchy iambic rhythm as the virelai and shares much of its character, but an essential difference is the extended melisma on the refrain line, perhaps to reflect the word ‘dure’ (‘harsh’) in the first stanza. The melisma is prepared by a shorter one, also on the syllable ‘-dure’ (of ‘endure’), but which ends on an open consonance where the refrain melody leads to a definitive closure. Its subject is the lover’s complaint about his lady’s unrelenting cruelty.

    The rondeau is the most intimate of the chanson types, often built on double meanings and puns in the text. Rondeau 19, Quant ma dame les maus d’amer m’aprent, is a late work, in which Machaut plays with the rhyme-sounds ‘-prent’ and ‘-prendre’. The text seems rather straightforward—if the lady can teach the ills of love, she could also teach its joys—but that might be misleading. As often in rondeaux, it may hide a verbal riddle, alluded to by the words ‘it’s easy enough to understand’, probably enclosed in the double meaning of ‘amer’ as ‘to love’ and ‘bitter’, contrasting with the hoped-for sweetness. Metrically this rondeau is rather complex because it superposes three different metres in its three voices: 6/8, 3/4, and 2/4 (to use their modern equivalents).

    Virelai 18, Helas! et comment aroie, is a complaint about a separation from the lady. Large melodic leaps in its couplets express the lover’s desperate feelings.

    A playful use with significant rhyme occurs in the only motet recorded here, Maugré mon cuer / De ma dolour / Quia amore langueo: an emphatic repetition of the rhyme-sound ‘-ment’ (‘mentir’ meaning ‘to lie’) characterizes the beginning of the motet. The subject of this complex work is the despair of a lover who tries in vain to conceal his lovesickness. Although people around him pretend he’s enjoying love and make him sing about it, the opposite is true: he has never received any sign of love from his lady, and therefore everyone can see that he was lying when he sung about his happiness. The motetus provides an example of such a false song: after a long summing-up of the lover’s good fortune, he has to confess in the end that he has been lying through his teeth the whole time. The tenor, a fragment from a Marian antiphon with words from the Song of Songs, reveals the truth: ‘For I languish with love.’ The short tenor melody, the basis of the motet, is repeated exceptionally often: six times. It is dominated by the triad F-A-C, and the true mode of the motet, G, only reveals itself in the final consonance of the motet, as a musical parallel to the lover’s revelation of his having lied.

    The motet is followed by a folksong-like virelai, Je vivroie liement, in binary metre and with brisk short phrases. According to its text the lover would live joyfully if his lady knew that in her his only cure is found. In ballade 16, Dame, comment qu’amez de vous ne soie, the lover expresses his fear that his lady will prefer another, by which she would sign his death warrant. The song has a very poignant beginning: the singer seems barely able to utter a word, as his hesitant first notes are interrupted by rests. The melody then unfolds in broad gestures of great expressivity and with a subtly varied movement. The frequent breaks in the melodic flow betray the lover’s despair.

    The lay was known as the most ambitious poetical genre, demanding maximal inventiveness from its maker. Its normal structure consists of twelve double stanzas, of which only the last has the same rhymes and melody as the first. All the other stanzas should have different melodies, rhymes, and varied metres. S’onques dolereusement, called ‘Le lay de confort’, is a Boethian reflection on how one can resist ill fortune by trusting to Hope. The challenge which Machaut posed himself in this particular lay lies in its musical structure as an enormous series of twelve chaces—canons for three voices. In each of the stanzas, Machaut plays with a different pair of end-rhyme sounds. The effect of the canonic structure is that the rhyme sounds follow each other three times in quick succession and sometimes coincide in two of the voices. The compositional idea behind the repeating canon structure was probably to evoke the eternal rotation of Fortune’s wheel. Machaut divided the lay into three equal parts, characterized by a different mensuration for each set of four stanzas: 6/8, 3/4, and back to 6/8; the resulting changes in pulse mark important turning points in the meaning of the text.

    In the first stanza of the lay, as is the tradition, the persona of the poet explains the motivation for its composition: the poet’s mistreatment at the hands of Fortune. The text expands on a long digression about Fortune’s evil character. It is not until the fifth stanza, where the metre changes to 3/4, that the poet reveals that she is a lady, who tries to console her imprisoned lover by imploring him to trust in Hope, who did so much to console the lady herself. In stanza IX, where the metre changes back to the initial 6/8, she confesses to be not entirely certain whether she is the only one for her lover; if he were unfaithful (like Fortune), that would kill her. However, she prefers to trust in Hope and to remain steadfast in her feelings. In the last stanza the lady urges her friend to act likewise and to pray to God devoutly.

    This truly monumental piece shows Machaut’s art of variation at its pinnacle, but each of his pieces was given its own particular character and flavour. Thanks to the care he took to have his works preserved in beautiful manuscripts, we can still be enticed and moved by Machaut’s colourful and captivating poetic and musical art, even at a distance of seven centuries.

    De Fortune: Ballade [4.58]
    De bonté, de valour: Virelai [3.58]
    J’aim miex languir Ballade [4.09]
    Quant ma dame: Rondeau [5.21]
    Helas! Et comment aroie: Virelai [5.22]
    Maugre mon cuer/De ma dolour/Quia amorea langueo: Motet [2.27]
    Je vivroie liement: Virelai [2.48]
    Dame, comment qu’amez Ballade [7.40]
    S’onques dolereusement ‘Le lay de confort’ [23.04]
    De fortune -4 part version, one verse [1.47]

Composer Info

Guillaume de Machaut (c1300-1377) ,

CD Info

CD CDA 68134, CD CDA 68195, CD CDA 68206